Private firefighters allegedly set illegal backfires during the Glass Fire

The Glass Fire has burned over 67,000 acres and 643 residences

The north end of the Glass Fire
The north end of the Glass Fire, as seen from St Helena South camera at 225 p.m. PDT Oct. 6, 2020. Looking east. AlertWildfire.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection is investigating allegations that an unauthorized backfire was set by private firefighters on the Glass Fire in California’s Wine Country.

ABC7 claims their video shows private firefighters being detained Friday October 2  by officers from CAL FIRE and the CHP.

A backfire or any burning operation can endanger the lives of firefighters and others if it is not carefully planned and coordinated with the fire organization. Fighting a fire in any area, but especially in an urban interface, can be chaotic as hell. Throw in an unauthorized backfire and it can put lives at risk. Many experienced wildland firefighters can tell you stories about a burning operation that meant well, but caught others unaware who had to scramble to escape the unexpected flames.

For the last 15 years we have been aware of insurance companies sending fire engines to protect high-valued homes that were covered by their policies when a wildfire approaches. Companies such as Chubb and Wildfire Defense figure keeping a multi-million dollar home from burning is less expensive than paying to rebuild it, so they contract with private companies to send firefighters to their customers properties when smoke is in the air.

The tricky part is intermixing the private crews with the existing incident management organization. Some jurisdictions view the insurance company crews as personnel that need to be protected, rather than fellow firefighters engaged in the fire fight. This became very evident during the 2017 Woolsey Fire when CAL FIRE prohibited the private engine crews from accessing their customers’ homes, including mansions in Malibu, California.

Our opinion:

First, firefighters that are not part of the incident management structure should not even consider putting fire on the ground unless they are coordinating closely with and have permission from the Division Supervisor or Branch Director.

Private engine crews can be helpful in keeping certain high-value structures from burning during a rapidly spreading wildfire when there are not enough government resources to protect every home. However, if they have no communication with the incident management organization which does not have any knowledge of their location, mission, or capabilities, it can throw a monkey wrench into an already chaotic situation.

CAL FIRE, the U.S. Forest Service, and the other large organizations involved in wildfire suppression need to sit down with the insurance companies and agree on some standard operating procedures. The Incident Management Team needs to know what the private crews are doing and where, and the private crews need to have direct communication with the Team.

One day, when all firefighting resources are carrying equipment that makes it possible to track their location, this will become much easier — and safer.

Typos, let us know HERE. And, please keep in mind our commenting ground rules before you post a comment.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire. Google+

38 thoughts on “Private firefighters allegedly set illegal backfires during the Glass Fire”

  1. Sounds like a better strategy for protecting these “high value structures” would be automatic or remote controlled sprinkler systems that could wet down the building and a large enough area around it to keep it from catching fire. That may not be the best solution, but it’s interesting that on such an important topic with such huge amounts of money riding on it that there isn’t more creativity, thinking outside the box, to come up with innovative and effective new technologies.

    1. Keeping cheaper homes from burning should be a priority too. The protection of the elite while letting the homes of the unwashed go, could, as I recently suggested, go a long way toward maximizing insurance company profits, but as Mark Twain might say, convincing them of it would be another matter. That’s why I suggested that the overall money cost could be reduced by government assistance to those who need it. That little shack throws a lot of heat and super-sized firebrands than would not arrive on your mansion if you cared enough for your distant neighbors.

      About 20 years ago I used sprinklers on my “mansion,” (plastered, including the eaves, block walls, and carefully managed “brush”) would not have been enough had the Cedar Fire come closer (I could see it from my deck), but I didn’t like what the wind did to them. I strongly urge anyone to fully test any (outside) home suppression system in strong winds when there isn’t a fire. Now WE are living in a little shack on Social Security, and I have to find a way to get a permit for a large enough tank, pump, pipe, and hose to shelter and defend in place rather than get stuck in evacuation traffic and die in my car . . .

      1. The Juan Browne (blancolirio channel) interview with male nurse Dean Strait two years ago after the Camp Fire leveled Paradise CA had a lesson in it most listeners missed: Strait filmed the fire surrounding him close at hand from the hospital parking lot where he was in no danger as long as he stayed there. Then he obeyed evacuation orders and was nearly killed stuck in traffic, and did see bodies in cars of people not so lucky. Our roads are all sized for normal use, which is a very small percent of the population at any moment. When there is a general evacuation order roads become linear parking lots where no one can move. Thankfully I’ve never experienced this condition in a fire, but did get a lesson in this dynamic when everyone tried to leave the solar eclipse a couple of years ago all at once. Took me 24 hours to go 100 miles. I’d rather stay home and fight than die in my car.

        1. First, the math should be done about what will happen on the roads, and how to treat those who elect to shelter AND DEFEND in place. Is there a computer program that can do this better than reactionary authoritarianism by guesswork and presumption. Again, in the Cedar Fire of 2003, nearly all of the fatalities were those evacuating.

          The elephant in the room is that context differs from case to case–the variables are infinite–so shelter and defend in place is a complex decision. Understandably, agencies are reluctant to open this door to lawsuits. My advice is: Don’t follow my advice.

          Bill, I’d like to know what kills most people in such fires. Most people seem to believe that it’s the fire, when CO and O2 deprivation might kill them before the flame front reaches them.

          Has Jack Cohen, or anyone else, tested self-contained, automatic/remote-controlled, fire suppression setups?

          Has anyone noticed (who as actually been there) the amount of unburned vegetation surrounding the burned out homes and other structures in a lot of the devastated communities like Paradise?

          1. The most important context difference for deciding whether to evacuate or stay and fight is whether the homeowner has prepared for this moment or not. If they haven’t cleaned up fuels around their house ahead of time and installed some basic firefighting equipment then it’s probably better to run. Most people fall in that category: they believe the government will save them in a fire, in spite of abundant evidence that the government simply doesn’t have resources to protect everyone, or insurance will cover them if the government fails.

            We often see news coverage of fires showing houses in full-flame and it’s easy for everyone to think there’s no way a civilian with pump & hose could fight that. But every structure fire starts small — a few leaves in a gutter, or the paint on the siding catching fire. The reason these little fires turn into a smoldering foundation is because there was no one present to stop it when it was small, they’d all followed orders to evacuate because they’d made zero preparation to stay & fight.

            1. I pretty much agree, Tom, but the homeowners need LEADERSHIP, and I don’t blame agencies and/or others for failing to advise on shelter and defend in place–it’s a snake pit of liability. My standard advice is “Don’t take my advice.” But the homeowners need access to resources so they can do their own thinking. The only way I can think of is to write Op-Ed articles where you’re just SHARING your opinion and quoting anecdotes. Preferably by the people who actually experienced the case.

              But the Feds could help a lot by giving financial help to exp0sed COMMUNITIES to do something more effective than “clearing,” which tends to result in unmanageable weed patches that are even more likely to ignite than the “brush” they have cleared. I once challenged a government firebug (“prescribed” burn supervisor) to bring his rigs and crew out to a year-old cleared area next to a natural, uncleared area of wild vegetation (“brush” is a dumb term because the media will have video of their reporter standing in a head-high pile of weeds one time, and the next in front of tall, green, wild plants), but he wouldn’t take me up on it. There is a clear difference between tinder (prime ignition fuels) and kindling, which is what burns in the flame-FRONT, not the heavier fuels; this can be readily measured by a post-burn inspection of the wild shrubbery by looking at the ends of the blackened stag-heads of branches left behind–nearly always less than a half-inch in diameter. We need actual field studies of the pre-burn and post-burn consequences. There are probably plenty gathering dust from decades past that have gone ignored by those who believe they know everything and resent any idea that doesn’t line up with theirs. “The wurst kinda ignerance ain’t so much not knowin’ as it is knowin’ so much that ain’t so.” –Thanks to Josh Billings (Henry Wheeler Shaw) the cracker-barrel philosopher of the 19th century.

              What most people (including most professional fire people) believe is that if they can make the fuel go away, all will be well. They don’t realize that the fuel in which ignition takes place is most often weeds growing in place of the “brush,”

          2. I was there a month after the Camp Fire. I was struck by the amount of unburned vegetation. We asked a local firefighter about what happened. He really didn’t know but he thought the fire moved so swiftly from home to home and along the ground that it didn’t have enough resident time to cook the overstory trees. It was very eerie. The other strong impression was how hopeless the evacuation plan and routes actually were. People leaving Paradise that day were bound for Paradise and really had no idea what fate awaited them. Californians are going to have to get positively Draconian about vegetation within 100 meters of buildings. Mow it down and build rock patios. There is no easy answer but there are things we can do.

  2. Get your facts in order before reporting a story to start had NOTHING TO DO WITH the insurance resource fire crews on scene….it was a private company working off a federal contract ordered by the team….the insurance resources in fact saved SEVERAL homes on day one and too…thank you

  3. Please don’t confuse the insurance company employees with legitimate contractors that are in the ICS.

  4. When I was in the Forest Service working on the Plumas in the late fifties and early sixties, the story was that a hungry ‘dozer operator started a fire in the North Fork of the Feather River Canyon. Apparently, this practice was not unknown among those who are sub-contractors. Juan Browne is pretty good on most issues he covers, but he is not always perfect, especially with his fire reporting. Everyone makes mistakes; as long as they own up and not cover up or ignore evidence new to them or otherwise refuse to counter critics, I can let it pass . . .

    “The suspension of judgment is the highest exercise in intellectual discipline.” –Ray Gilmore

  5. Private fire crews in wine country raise concerns over equity, safety

    Here’s the latest on property owners in California hiring private fire fighting resources. I guess the 2018 Wollesey Fire is at the top of the list in this department. Still it’s nonetheless, super sketchy for everyone involved with professional Fire fighting agencies in the west.
    Great relevant topic again, Bill.
    Thanks for sharing with us.

  6. Bill…just a clarification
    Wildfire Defense Systems is a company that the insurance companies contract with to provide protection

    Their personnel are required to check in at the ICP and obtain authorization to enter the fire area

  7. It is possibly the most inevitable headline for Wildfire Today:
    “Private firefighters allegedly set illegal backfires……….”
    The insurance companies can do better.

    1. the insurance companies have done better, this alleged company was hired by a home owner not contracted by the insurance companies. The insurance companies are in constant communication with incident command.

  8. Just wondering if someone did do any firing around structures was the tactic successful in saving them? I am quite sure the homeowners would very grateful as would the insurance companies.

    1. It’s SO context-dependent. Even fire professionals have been know to make some bad calls. Fire behavior is to SOME EXTENT “predictable,” but independent variables are such jokers in the deck that setting “backfires” close to structures is a risky practice. For one thing it can ignite nearby dry litter that can add to the firebrand storm–or create one. Even in calm conditions, “fire devils” can get strong enough to lift lightweight (or even some relatively heavy) embers up while you’re watching the backfire and your house lights up behind you.

  9. Glad you posted this. First, I have testified before the California Senate on the need for contract fire resources. The AFL/CIO fire union in California fought this idea. They do not care about public safety, they care about the union. I been doing this job for 50 years. You lite backfires to protect your position. If I hire you to save my property then burn out…

    1. Bill, not Gabbert, the one that posted he spoke to the CA Senate. “You lite backfires to protect your position. If I hire you to save my property then burn out…”

      What you are insinuating here is the wild west, and a very dangerous me-first attitude. If people adopt this attitude, they may save some property, but eventually it will kill someone.

      Your point about having the right to protect yourself or your property, is well taken. It would be nice if you could adopt some of the methods/ideas other posters have made here about balancing independent action with the collective good. Government agencies should find a way to incorporate all those who want to help. The BLM had a similar issue with ranchers. Instead of trying to block them out, they provided some minimal training and equipment and called them RPAs. They now have a much more effective IA response in areas that take hours to reach by federal forces.

      The Glass Fire is a great piece of ground to look at and see that it is going to continue seeing fast-moving fires that threaten lives and destroy structures, well before Fire Departments can get organized. What if instead of relying on Fire Departments only, there were neighborhood departments with cheap equipment and basic training, to put the fire out before firefighters arrived, or to help lead evacuations or shelter-in-place events. It’s a tough task to tackle, but if the BLM can do it, I am guessing there is a way around payment and liability. (Not that payment should be that big a deal from money spent perspective, but it is cleanest for liability, and not creating an incentive for bad actors (arsonists) to pop-up and create a new problem.)

      It could be tempting fate to have unprepared responders in the mix, but the current approach isn’t entirely working either and as one poster points out, the likelihood of dying while evacuating may be just as great if not greater. If we had the most vulnerable evacuate first, the untrained but able bodies second, and lastly the neighborhood forces after they have been relieved it may just help everyone get out in a quicker and more organized fashion even if the efforts to fight the fire fail its some organization to chaos. (By the way, I was fighting fire near the Glass last year and I would mostly say the roads where people had to escape were much worse places to be then most of their homes and vineyards.)

      1. Agree with Idaho, but how to get past the liability? A few years ago five men died in their rigs at a house they were sent to defend on a steep ridge. The house could have insulated against the heat, provided adequate oxygen, and they might have saved the house along with themselves, after flame-front passage (windy, fast-moving fire). At least they would have had some black to stand in. Training? Legislation?

        1. Mr Tyson, please explain your comments and position in your statement. Liability? For doing their job as tragic as the ending was?
          The USFS crew of E57 that died on the Esperanza fire defending a structure in a horrific turn of events during a Foen wind event. We can point fingers all day long but in the end as a highly experienced retired company officer and Chief officer, I can say I have been in similar circumstances and most likely would have chosen to stay under same circumstances. Forgive me if you are trying to make another point, but I feel this is diametrically opposite of the discussion at hand.

          1. I didn’t mention the specific fire. I don’t put blame on anyone–it just happened. I talked to the fire boss afterwards and he was devastated, but I don’t believe it was his fault. I wasn’t there, so I can’t comment on the Esperanza fire or any other such fire, except in the abstract. I believe I would have gotten into the house, but maybe not. Complete context unknown to me. Just tragic. But that shouldn’t keep us from trying to learn lessons from experience. Got any ideas for solutions? Sorry if I left the wrong impression. I just want to see crew deaths and injuries minimized as much as possible. I’ll appreciate any comments.

      2. It is entirely possible for local residents living in the WUI to organize and get their S 183 Wildland fire training and purchase basic fire suppression equipment to form neighborhood fire patrols. It’s something I have developed and tested myself since 2000. A great example of this is the Cres Fleming story of how he almost stopped the 416 Fire that the narrow gauge railroad sparked outside Durango Co. I’ll find the video & post it and you’ll see it first hand & up close.
        This neighborhood fire patrol concept is what Idaho fire fighter is hinting at.
        It’s goal is simply to have equipment ready to roll in the Wildland fire season with a decent gas powered fire pump and 100-300 gallons of water in a truck.
        It’s simple in theory, every new fire starts small, unless it’s an explosion like in Lebanon recently. The first 5-30 minutes are crucial in an IA situation.
        Put out completely, or at least slow down a small fire before it becomes too big to do so, before the real fire cavalry arrives.
        You will most likely have a little time to size up the fire and determine what plan of action to take, fight or flight.
        However, Let’s examine what happens when those amateur local resident fire fighters take things a step further and light a burnout operation to save their wheat fields and ranch buildings without notifying the IC.
        The bottom line for me with this neighborhood fire patrol concept is that our quality VFD is 30-50 minutes away from my neighborhood, I have always felt that’s probably going to be too late to stop an escaped fire.
        So I decided to do something about that problem. It proved itself remarkably during a scary arson incident with multiple set fires nearby.
        I managed to knock two of them down & out and also slowed a third one down enough, till the VFD showed up and took control of the fire suppression.
        I would never think of lighting a backfire anywhere unless, I felt that a burn over was imminent and if it was the case, then I’d certainly radio that information into the fire command.
        What if we had fire patrols that could handle IA’s and assist with evacuations by going door to door or using bullhorns and good old air sirens?
        This is our future, whether we like it or not. It’s obviously getting horribly worse. Local residents certainly have the ability to take on a much bigger role in preventing new fire starts in their neighborhoods, as well as possibly attacking them successfully and making everyone’s life a lot easier.
        Stay safe everyone!

        1. I agree that however it is done that response time is crucial. I like your ideas, as part of a comprehensive fire suppression/readiness strategy–and one different from most of what I “see” on the Tee Vee and here. Thanks again, Bill!

          Y’all stay safe, well, and happy!

          1. Thank Wayne for your positive response.
            Why isn’t there more neighborhood fire watch/fire patrols like the one that Cres Fleming is part of, in his subdivision up in the urban interface outside of Durango?

            You went through the Cedar Fire in So Cal. That one set the bar for destruction.Unbelievably fast moving & scary is what my friends said about that fire.
            So, much is riding on the first 5-30 minutes of an unwanted ignition.
            When it comes to convincing people about a neighborhood fire patrols effectiveness in prevention and suppression of a wildfire, I tell my neighbors and Taos county residents this.
            If you had a fire in your kitchen, you wouldn’t just sit there & watch it grow, you’d grab that old dry chem extinguisher that’s been sitting on the wall for the last 25 years and you would pray that it would work & you would show that fire just exactly who is the boss.
            If that didn’t work out well for you, that’s ok, because you might’ve just bought 10 minutes of extra time response time from the local VFD, because you slowed it down enough, till that real brave volunteer fire cavalry that you give money to every year, showed up on their iron fire pumping horses, like knights in shining armor coming to your emotional fire rescue.😉

            Stay positive and stay safe!

  10. The problem with relying on the government to protect your property, is that is not going to happen. Limited resources. Another problem is the government picks the winners and losers. Had a major flood in my county. One larger community requested help from county. Community had flood dike structure, etc. in place. In this flood, the city was still overwhelmed. Chief county officer told me that no one at the county emergency center would not lift a finger to help. As far as they were concerned, lets write off that city. State has/had excellent national guard resources for flood fight. County just had to put in a request. Another time, a fire occurred near our community. The city fire department that was to respond, had another fire going. We are second due to fires in this jurisdiction and I responded (somebody had to) with a fire pumper. Sheriff Deputy tried to run me off road with his patrol vehicle. Wished he would have hit fire pumper and explained that one. Government determines (normally through politics) who the winner and losers are. If the gov’t wants to be biased and write off private property, then property owners (and their insurance provider) need to step up and protect the property. More than that, people can tell if the government will not protect their family.

  11. I know what you mean. I have worked for three different government agencies, and know something of their inner workings. People like us are contemptuously referred to as “boy scouts.” If you want to advance in the organization, you “make deals.” I don’t make deals. I got squeezed out.

    But that doesn’t mean that you can’t occasionally beat the schemers at their own game. But it takes a lot of work, perseverance, and a willingness to lose battles and adapt.

    Again, context is everything. Too bad that so much energy needs to be wasted just to get what is right done, but that’s the kind of culture we’ve had built around us while we were enjoying the bread and circuses.

    I grew up in a community where everybody helped each other. That still exists where it can, but only in small enclaves. That age is over. Rebuild it.

  12. A couple items that have not been discussed here.
    A private fire company that has been hired by insurance interests to protect specific properties is tasked with protecting the financial interests of the insurance company. Understandable and quite appropriate on the surface. The discussion about being involved in the overall supervision and accountability of the incident command structure become a sticky wicket. The minute we require them to check in, be accountable to a DIVS , conduct operations on the assigned frequencies, and appear in the IAP, they essentially become part of the incident. In many instances this requires the agency to “hire” them as contractors, and this has been pushed by some private fire agencies and won. The minute the public agency engages them and provides leadership and assignment supervision in CA, there is an obligation to pay them. This has occurred when private water tenders, and dozers just show up and offer to help. The minute we utilize them, then we pay them. While not all are guilty of this (most are highly respectable), some specifically look to do this, I have been the unlucky recipient of this tactic.
    The other issue, and a main concern of the unions, like it or not, is that a private fire company has as its primary reason for being in business is profit. It’s simple business math.
    It has been proven time and again these companies hire marginally trained employees and pay them as little as possible to maintain their profit. In many instances ( certainly not all) specialty training is not given or not a concern because they are “not really doing those things” on the line. This poses severe safety risks.

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